Sugar alternatives: a different sort of sweet


Sift’s Fall 2017 issue has plenty of sweet things to discover and bake, including our feature on alternatives to white sugar.

Coconut and date sugars, honey, and brown rice syrup are all sugar alternatives with unique flavor profiles that are worth getting to know. Some alternatives are sweeter than sugar, some have many more trace nutrients, and some add healthy fiber and are absorbed more slowly than white sugar.

There’s a dizzying roster of choices for finding a path to sweeten your recipes. Here’s an overview, with ideas for how to use them.


Agave syrup is excellent poured over pancakes. It dissolves easily in cold liquids. Darker versions will have stronger caramel notes. 150% sweeter than sugar.

Barley malt syrup adds a classic malt flavor to dark breads, bagels, beer, and barbecue sauces. Enhances browning in baked goods. 50% as sweet as sugar.

Brown rice syrup can be used in any recipe calling for a liquid sweetener. It has distinct butterscotch notes with a slight nuttiness to its taste. 50% to 75% as sweet as sugar.

Cane syrup is also called table syrup. It can be used on pancakes or biscuits, or wherever light corn syrup is called for. Equally as sweet as sugar.

Date syrup has a distinct date flavor; it’s ideal when mixed with yogurt in a smoothie or poured over hot cereal. Less sweet than sugar.

Golden syrup has a slightly caramelized flavor that’s wonderful in tarts, puddings, and granola bars, where it makes them a bit chewier than they would be otherwise. Slightly sweeter than sugar.

Sugar Alternatives via @kingarthurflour

Honey can come in a wide range of flavors, depending on the plants from which its pollen comes. Good in any baked good using a liquid sweetener. 150% sweeter than sugar.

Maple syrup ranges in flavor from light to dark. The darker syrups have stronger caramel and some bitter notes, and their taste comes through better in baked goods. Equally as sweet as sugar.

Sorghum syrup is mild and slightly more sour than cane syrup. It blends well with butter and works well anywhere maple syrup does. Equally as sweet as sugar.

For a deeper dive into honey, molasses, and maple syrup, check out Baking with Liquid Sweeteners.


Coconut sugar melts and behaves like cane sugar. Has butterscotch and brown sugar notes. Equally as sweet as sugar.

Date sugar is sweet and particularly well suited to pairing with vegetable purées or other fruits. It’s high in fiber, and doesn’t melt or dissolve. Tastes like dates, and pairs well with ginger and cinnamon. Less sweet than sugar.

Palm sugar is often lighter in color than coconut or date sugar, with a more neutral flavor. Equally as sweet as sugar.

Ideal recipes for these sugar alternatives

We’ve captured the essence of these wonderful flavors, and collected these recipes to show them off. They’re sure to become part of your baking repertoire. Let us show you what they can do.

sticky toffee pudding via @kingarthurflour

Sticky Toffee Pudding

A traditional favorite in Britain, this moist cake is served with butterscotch sauce and whipped or clabbered cream. We’ve updated the classic recipe with alternative sweeteners for a rich, caramelized flavor in the sauce.

Swap out the 1/4 cup brown sugar for one of our alternative sugars. Coconut, palm, and date sugar are cousins, but not clones. The cake can be made with any of the three, but for the sauce, only coconut sugar will work. Date sugar is made of finely ground dried whole dates, which means it contains a lot of plant fiber that keeps it from melting smoothly.

plum and ginger galette via @kingarthurflour

Plum and Ginger Galette

Plums are beautifully rich and more flavorful cooked than not, which makes them a natural partner for coconut or date sugar. This lightly sweet galette has a hint of ginger for spice.

beinenstich via @kingarthurflour

Bee Sting (Bienenstich)

In European bakeries, this classic pastry starts with a tender, honey-sweetened brioche. The top is gilded with more honey and almonds, then split and filled with pastry cream.

King Arthur’s original Bienenstich recipes calls for white sugar, but check out the baker’s notes below the recipe for an all-honey version.

sweet potato cake via @ kingarthurflour

Sweet Potato Cake

In this cake, brown rice syrup really has the chance to strut its stuff. It has a wonderful butterscotch note to it that marries beautifully with the moist sweet potato and rum. We recommend baking your sweet potatoes, either in the microwave or the oven, instead of peeling and boiling them. This is a moist cake, and boiled sweet potatoes can be too watery.

quad coconut bars via @kingarthurflour

Quad Coconut Bars

Coconut shows off its versatility in these layered bars with four different sources of coconut flavor. A sweet coconut frosting tops off a bittersweet chocolate filling and caramel coconut sugar cookie base.

This wealth of ways to sweeten things up from nature’s pantry is only the beginning of the good tastes you’ll find in the Fall 2017 issue of Sift magazine. We hope you’ll give them a try, and let us know which alternative sweeteners you like and use. Let us know in the comments below!

Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.


  1. Jammie Holden

    It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people on this topic, however, you seem like you know whatyou’re talking about! Thanks

  2. Mary

    Every single one of these “alternatives” is just another form of sugar. Even something like applesauce, which is often suggested on these types of lists, is full of sugar. More and more information is available about how bad sugar is for us and how unnatural it is for us to eat. Most of the fruits and vegetables we eat have been bred and bred over time to select for starch, sugar, shape, texture, and lack of blemishes until the end product looks very little like the wild/”original” fruit or vegetable and has lost most of the nutrition. Bananas, which are often suggested as a substitute for sugar and other ingredients in baking, are full of starch/sugar and are nothing like their wild/”original” version. I used to think any fruit or vegetable was good and healthy, but now I know that many of them are full of sugar and lacking the nutrients they are “supposed” to have. Populations that eat almost no sugar have almost no tooth decay, and sugar is also being linked to cancer. I am on a quest to significantly reduce the sugar I cook and bake with and every list I find has the same “sugars” listed as alternatives to sugar. It’s frustrating. I just want to find a couple of substitutes that I can use to put together some kind of oat bar with dried fruit, nuts, and seeds as a healthier alternative to something like muffins.

  3. MK Crom

    The Sugar Alternatives article is very informative but a disappointment for me. My husband is a diabetic, not on insulin, but using a prescription medicine. He does not need to count servings or exchanges. When I read “sugar alternatives”, I thought, “Finally, someone with the know-how to substitute sugar for a diabetic when baking!” Alas, that is not what the article was about.
    In addition to flavor, when substituting for sugar, in baking, there often is the extra challenge of texture. Things that do not depend on the sweetener for texture. are relatively easy, such as tapioca pudding, pumpkin (squash) custard, french bread, pancakes, graham cracker crust, fruit crisp crust, and cheesecake. Agave gives a brown sugar flavor, maple syrup has its no-sugar counterpart, frozen juice concentrate is sometimes useful.
    The Cinnamon-Apple Twist Bread looks delicious. Substituting for sugar in the filling is easy.
    For the dough, I have decreased sugar in a sweet dough recipe. It raises fine, but of course, does not taste as sweet, and the texture is not quite the same, though it is edible.The sugar in the dough needs to be decreased; after a small amount of something like Stevia, what, if anything would you use to replace the rest of the sugar?
    And the Glaze is a real texture test. How can a glaze consistence be obtained when 3 Tb. of Stevia is used instead of 1 C of confectioners’ sugar? (To avoid an aftertaste, I never, never use the same amount of sweetener as sugar, regardless what the directions might say.)
    I would appreciate very much if you would publish a sugar/sweetener substitute list for diabetics, keeping aware of the challenge of texture, and a variety of flavors. Or, have you done this elsewhere, and I missed it?

    1. Susan Reid, post author

      We very much appreciate the challenges you face when trying to find substitutes for sugar; we are working to expand the breadth of our information, but our testing capacity is finite, and we won’t put recipes or guidelines out there until we know exactly what a substitution will do. What you’re asking for would require many months of testing, and there are other resources better suited to executing it than our test kitchen.

      I can, however, say that there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to use Stevia in a sweet dough; there is enough food in the flour for the yeast to rise, and if you’re looking to replicate the flavor, a bit of sugar substitute is certainly a fine place to go. I would also suggest adding a bit more vanilla or almond extract than you normally would to a sweet dough; it will give the impression of sweetness without adding a lot of sugar. Susan

  4. Jo-Ann

    Just tried your Twisted Apple bread, egg allergy,
    so I use EnerG egg replacer. Very pleased with recipe. Delicious, easier than I thought.
    Thanks, love your site and recipes.

  5. Marsha

    I’d love to see another article with alternative sugars like monk fruit, stevia, erythritol, etc and how to use them in gluten free baking.

    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Marsha. We are always working on trying to help our gluten-free baking customers, but up to now our focus has been more on addressing allergens (dairy and eggs). Since gluten-free recipes are already something of a challenge for structure, the additional complication of sugar substitutes creates a testing challenge that at present is beyond our resources to adequately address.

      You might want to check out Amy Green’s baking substitution list. There is also some good information here about sugar substitutions and gluten-free baking. Susan

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